The Ministry of Health's proposed 10 p.m. curfew on the sale of beer and alcohol has sparked weeks of heated debate and divided public opinion.
Faced with a rash of emergencies, including deadly child vaccinations and numerous high-profile medical malpractice cases, health officials still took time to prepare the entirely unfeasible proposal in their air-conditioned offices.
The principal problem with this bill is that alcohol, in and of itself, isn't a public health disaster. Alcohol abusers cause public health disasters. Logically, it follows that people should be prevented from drinking to excess rather than from buying alcohol during certain times of the day.
During a press briefing held on July 23, Tran Thi Trang, the Deputy Director of the Ministry of Health's Legal Department said: “168 countries ban the sale and consumption of alcoholic drinks during certain times of the day, including nine ASEAN countries.”
It is unclear how she arrived at this figure.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei are Muslim countries which regulate the consumption of alcohol for religious rather than public health reasons. Singapore raised beer and alcohol prices to limit drinking. Thailand, the Philippines, Laos and Vietnam [four of 11 ASEAN countries] have implemented few laws regulating the sale and consumption of alcohol.
The ministry has suggested that the new curfew will be enforced by market watchdogs, people’s committees (at all levels) and inspectors from relevant fields. If this comes to pass, we can all get ready to watch these agencies engage in a game of "pass the ball"--the notorious pastime of Vietnamese officials.
Enforcement here is so convoluted that the simple practice of not selling alcohol to under-aged drinkers (a basic law enforced in many countries) barely exists in Vietnam.
Vietnam has dozens of absurd and unenforceable laws on its books, but this new alcohol curfew may take the cake.
Drinkers are already joking about stockpiling booze or drinking harder, earlier, to beat the curfew.
Most traffic accidents occur between 6pm and midnight, so why didn’t they propose a ban starting at 6 p.m.?
If the government considers beer and alcohol dangerous, why has it continuously approved the construction of new breweries and distilleries? Remember that Vietnam is one of the world's leading consumers of beer. Not surprisingly, no official has yet shied away from the generous tax revenue created by the trade.
Saigon Beer – Alcohol – Beverage Corporation (Sabeco) has remained Ho Chi Minh City’s top enterprise in terms of contributions to the state exchequer. At one time, HCMC drinkers muttered the slogan “drinking beer is patriotic.”
From 2005-2013, Sabeco’s production increased nine-fold from 148.5 million liters to 1.33 billion liters, a 100 percent year-on-year increase.
However, countries that indulge the “free trade” of beer and alcohol always suffer a loss. The more beers sold, the higher the loss. Booze revenues are grossly outweighed by their costs. Drinking causes traffic accidents and degrades public ethics and health.
The trade only benefits the small number of people who profit from alcoholism.
Vietnam's drinking problems are worst in the Central Highlands and north-western region where women and children drink from large mugs and bowls. The toll it takes on their bodies can easily observed from a distance.
In the cities, men who don't drink are a rare breed.
Drinking has become a critical part of the shared culture; anyone who doesn't drink is considered abnormal.
There can never be a ban on alcohol, so long as drinking remains the primary way to prove one's strength, bond with friends and welcome guests.
That hasn't stopped our government, however, which seems to find delight in banning things it cannot control.
In order to effectively curb alcohol consumption, Vietnam must pursue a slow progression that begins by changing our drinking culture. The government could be a leader in this by providing a good example. Without that, even 1,000 health ministries cannot effect a change.
The best way to prevent drinking is raising taxes on alcohol and issuing strict punishments against violators.
Vietnam should begin by effectively banning the sale of beer and alcohol to under-aged drinkers.
In the meantime, government officials should step out of their air-conditioned offices and into the street, so that the next draft law reflects some version of reality.
* The writer lives and works at a tourist company in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are her own.